George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Collaborative Online Continuing Education: Professional Development Through Learning Communities

Technology enables educators to meet remotely to experience growth as teachers.

May 1, 1999

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.

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