Tapped In: Connecting Communities of Learners Online

Teaching teachers how to enhance their curriculum by maximizing what the Internet has to offer.

Teaching teachers how to enhance their curriculum by maximizing what the Internet has to offer.
TAPPED IN: Connecting Communities of Learners Online

Tapped In provides a virtual meeting space for K-12 teachers.

Credit: Tapped In

In 1997, ED's Oasis was funded by AT&T's Learning Network to help teachers use the Internet as an integral tool for teaching and learning. Two objectives -- to help teachers know where to go on the Internet and to help teachers know what to do with online materials -- resulted in the creation of a set of Web site evaluation guidelines and three kinds of resources:

  • Links to the best educational Web sites
  • Stories of teaching experiences
  • A library of Internet lesson plans.

From the beginning, Oasis staff wanted to provide more than just resources. We believed teachers would derive greater benefit if ED's Oasis were utilized in the context of an online learning community. We knew that just having people interact online did not automatically mean they were learning from one another.

During our first year we tried several on-site strategies (discussion boards, listservs, surveys, etc.) to increase the level of participation by visitors to ED's Oasis but were unable to bring folks together into a cohesive community.

Then we discovered Tapped In, a thriving "community of communities" developed by SRI International to meet informal networking and formal professional growth needs of K-12 teachers. At first glance, Tapped In looks like a chat room, but it provides more than just text-based communication in a real-time mode. Members can connect to the environment in several ways, but through its unique TAPestry program, Tapped In provides a graphical Web interface that allows participants to communicate, look at Web sites together, and create documents together.

In Tapped In, the human infrastructure is the critical element. Tapped In is staffed by helpful education professionals and populated by teachers from communities across the country. This means that it is easy to reach a critical mass of participants; there is usually someone to talk to. Nothing is more deadly to an online community than the "empty house" syndrome. It's easy to converse when someone is at the other end but pointless when you're the only one present. ED's Oasis uses the Tapped In environment in both formal and informal ways. It is where we hold staff meetings, have regular "office hours," lead "tours" of ED's Oasis, and help teachers find instructional materials.

Last spring we used it to prepare for the first MasterSearch Internet lesson plan contest. Because our judging staff was drawn from across the U.S. and Canada, it was financially impossible to judge contest entries as a group in a single physical location. Instead, we used our offices in Tapped In. We practiced judging by examining a Web page version of a sample entry in one browser window, and "talked" to each other in another as we went through the scoring rubric step by step. We were able to clarify ambiguities in the wording of the rubric and refine the contest judging process.

Another successful use of Tapped In has been to honor our MasterSearch winners by featuring them as guests in special online meetings. It is not uncommon for contest winners or Teachers of the Year to be celebrated at conferences where they shine in a brief public spotlight. But it is unusual for them to be available to other teachers and to share their strategies and experiences. We introduce MasterSearch contest winners in online events during which they present their winning lessons, respond to questions, and share Web page examples of student work. This is the work of a learning community; participants learn from the shared experiences of others.

Our community is enhanced by the presence of other educational groups who maintain "office space" in Tapped In, including the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Math Forum,the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, the Museum of Tolerance, and many others.

The experiences of teachers, students, professors, and program directors demonstrate that Tapped In provides the "right conditions" essential for the development of an online learning community. At ED's Oasis, we believe our partnership with Tapped In allows us to provide more complete support for teacher professional development. It works.

Terrie Gray, Ed.D., is founder of ED’s Oasis, an organization that helps teachers use the Internet. She is currently dean of Connected University at Classroom Connect, which provides online professional development with challenging content and maximum interactivity.
References:
Gray, T. L. (1998). "Online Environments for Teacher Professional Development: A Pilot Study." Unpublished. Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University. Hagel, J., and A. G. Armstrong. (1997).
Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities.Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
An adaption of this article is published in Edutopia: Success Stories for Learning in the Digital Age.

This article originally published on 5/1/1999

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