Collaborative Online Continuing Education: Professional Development Through Learning Communities | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Collaborative Online Continuing Education: Professional Development Through Learning Communities

Technology enables educators to meet remotely to experience growth as teachers.
By Kathleen P. Fulton, Margaret Riel
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Teachers learn technological skills while developing online learning modules.

Credit: University of Maryland

Today's technological tools make it possible to teach in new ways -- to do things differently or even to do entirely different things. Elsewhere we build a case for the multiple forces at play today for educational reform and how these reform goals have led to a greater emphasis on collaboration and the creation of learning communities as appropriate and effective vehicles for new learning for students.

These same forces offer the opportunity for new models for the professional growth of teachers. Learning communities share a way of knowing, a set of practices, and shared value of the knowledge that comes from these procedures. These learning communities, with expanded human and technological resources, bring together students, teachers, and community members in directing the course of education in new ways.

Teacher Evelyn Walls at Francis Scott Key Instructional Elementary/Middle School developed lessons using the Module Construction and shared instructional ideas as part of the Maryland Electronic Learning Community (MELC).

Credit: Maryland Electronic Learning Community

What is a Learning Community?

Knowledge construction in our society is rarely done in isolation. People in a field work together building on the ideas and practices of the group. Learning increasingly takes place in communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) or learning communities (Ruopp, Gal, Drayton, and Pfister, 1993; Pea and Gomez, 1992). A learning community is a group of people who share a common interest in a topic or area, a particular form of discourse about their phenomena, tools and sense-making approaches for building collaborative knowledge, and valued activities.

These communities may be large, the task general, and the form of communication distant, as in a group of mathematicians around the world developing math curriculum and publishing their work in a set of journals. Alternatively, they can be small, the task specific, and the communication close, as when a team of teachers and students plan the charter of their school.

Learning Communities for Teachers

Communications technology provides promising opportunities for collaborative learning environments for teachers in which they can reflect on practice with colleagues, share expertise in a distributed knowledge framework, and build a common understanding of new instructional approaches, standards, and curriculum. This corresponds with a view of professional development that moves beyond skills training and generic inservice delivery models to a more flexible, continuous engagement with other experts in the field (OTA, 1995).

The concept of continuous professional development in which teachers are given time to collaborate with colleagues and update knowledge and skills and are expected to assume much of the responsibility for their own professional growth and development has been identified by teachers as a critical element in school reform (OTA, 1995). This approach is used in projects such as the Mathematics Learning Forums Projects or PBS Mathline in which teachers use computer networks to link with colleagues around the country.

Ongoing professional growth is also the motivation for the design of new online social spaces such as SRI's TAPPED IN community center where teachers come to reflect on practice, experiment with new content, share approaches, take online courses, and provide pedagogical, technical, and emotional support to one another. These and other online professional development activities require the teacher to take greater responsibility for his or her learning. What follows is a case study of one learning community.

The Maryland Electronic Learning Community

The Maryland Electronic Learning Community (MELC) is an example of a teacher development and support group built upon the notion of formal training in technology integration and linked with continuing collaboration and support.

Funded in the first round of U.S. Department of Education Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, MELC is part of a larger challenge grant given to the Baltimore City schools, called the Baltimore Learning Community. The MELC project is a coalition of partners who form an electronic learning community using technologies such as digitized video, Internet resources, two-way video and audio for distance learning, and electronic mail to support and enhance middle school curriculum and professional development.

Central to the project is the creation of an electronic lesson plan template that is used by teachers to create online learning modules. This tool allows them to integrate rich and powerful online original sources (video, text, graphics, audio, and images) into the middle school curriculum. These electronic resources have been indexed according to topic area and against state outcomes and national content standards. The teachers access the resources via a search engine developed by University of Maryland faculty and graduate students. There is no centralized source of expertise in the project: learning goes back and forth in many directions as all of the different partners work to understand the best ways to blend rich content into the learning environment.

Professional development is embedded throughout the project. Teachers, university faculty, prospective teachers, and graduate students learn technological skills in the context of developing the modules. For some, this collaboration marks the first time they have used technology in their classrooms. Throughout the project, the question of support for teachers has been central.

How can the learning community provide support to the "front line warriors" -- the teachers working day-to-day with this new resource and teaching approach? In the first two years of the project, much of the support came from the University of Maryland researchers and consisted mostly of general and technical help. Training and support also comes from Baltimore City public school staff and UM researchers at regularly scheduled technology training sessions, now run over a two-way distance learning network. Teachers receive a small stipend for attending these optional sessions and are encouraged to develop modules in a supportive and collaborative environment. Gradually, however, collegial support is being provided by the teachers themselves in these informal sessions, in sessions they have organized in their home schools, and through e-mail and the project listserv.


Learning communities offer a strategy for educational reform that involves all participants -- parents, learners, teachers, community members, intellectuals, and political leaders -- in a continual process of evolving education. By establishing connections both inside and outside of the classrooms, where experts of all ages can be a part of the resources for learning, we can help all students establish life-long patterns for learning, support teachers in a process of continuing growth, and encourage all learners to take an active role in the construction of knowledge.

Kathleen Fulton is director for Reinventing Schools for the 21st Century at the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Margaret Riel is associate director of the Center for Collaborative Research in Education at the University of California at Irvine.
Lave, J., and E. Wegner. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress. (1995).
"Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection." OTA-EHR-616. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Pea, R.D., and L.M. Gomez. (1992).
"Distributed Multimedia Learning Environments: Why and How?" Interactive Learning Environments 2, 2:73-109. Ruopp, R., S. Gal, B. Drayton, and M. Pfister. (1993).
LabNet: Toward a Community of Practice. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Respected sir, mam,
I am the student of M.S. University,Baroda from jr. Masters, faculty of Home Science Extension and communication department. I request u to provide me the findings of the experiment through video for development purpose. i will wait for ur favourable reply.

thank you.
Sarika patel

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To Whom it May Concern:
I think the idea of learning communities is an excellent idea. I think that it will help educators, parents, and students to become more aware of what is going on in the Education World. I also feel that it will help educators begin to work more closely with one another, therefore increasing professional development and to begin working towards the idea of being an expert teacher. I would like to form some of these learning communities in my area.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I forgot to mention in my previous post about the technology integration and its benefits and downfalls. I am all for the integration of technology, but I am also 25 years old. I am finding that teachers that are not familiar with computers and technology are becoming more and more frustrated with all the new technology introduced into the school system where I teach. Any advice on how to handle this??

Tasonn Haynes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm currently getting my M.S. in Literacy. I'm 26 years old, and I'm also finding that many of my colleagues are overwhelmed with all of the technology that is being tossed in their directions. I think one of the problems with the introduction of new technology is that when its presented, it's just that. Presented. Most places don't offer a user friendly approach to integrating the technology. Even for me, there's technology that is offered at my school, but no one to train me on how to use it, so I feel sorta of alone in that sense.

Tasonn Haynes
New Haven, CT.
Walden University

Satyra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have found learning communities to be very beneficial for teachers and students. Using technology to communicate with other professionals outside of my school or district is vital. I look forward to using "online professional development activities". As part of my professional growth, it is imperative that I stay current of new advancements in my filed.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was hired to be an instructional coach within the high school. My job is to work with teachers using research based materials. I have lots of knowledge here. My husband does computers for a living and I have a fairly strong background in computer literacy.
My question...the schools/districts are requiring us to use all of this tech. Teachers are jumping on board trying. I'm learning along with them the many new tech. pieces. What should I be doing to help the teachers I work with along in this are. I'm interested in what you all think.

Bujar Kocana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am university Library director in Albania.Our University has 10000 students and some hundred Teachers.In our university the teachers not have needs for library,only 2% of them are users of library,and 4% of students are users of library.I would like to ask you is any other university like this?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that professional learning communities are an intregal part of becoming an expert teacher! I think it is a great way to stay connected with the collegial community and is a great place to reflect and hear what others have to say

Christina James's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I completely agree with you. It only hinders many professionals when new technology is presented but no one is around to show how it should be properly used. I'm very technology literate and it doesn't take long for me to figure new things out, but for others, by the time they've figured out how to use it; it's old and something else has taken its place.

-Christina James
Goldsboro, NC
Walden University

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