Developing online communities of practice in preservice teacher education

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Developing online communities of practice in preservice teacher education
  Developing Online Communities of Practice inPreservice Teacher Education Melissa J. Poole University of ABSTRACT Despite attempts to encourage greater teacher collegiality, the privacy of the classroom persists. Onlinecommunication tools offer opportunities for teachers to overcome these boundaries in professional communities of practice. This study of two cohorts of preservice teachers sought to determine if they were successful in buildingcommunity in class and online and to examine factors in the tools and the context of their practice that may haveenhanced or impeded their ability to create community. Findings suggest that the physical and pedagogical contextsof the classroom and the way the communication tools are implemented are important factors in their use. Keywords Preservice teacher development, collaborative learning online, communities of practice, community tools INTRODUCTION Despite a variety of strategies for encouraging greater collegiality in teaching, including teacher coaching,mentoring, and interdisciplinary teams, teaching remains, for many, a private endeavor. Set against increasinglegislative demands for standardization and accountability, teachers struggle to define themselves as professionals,with some of the same rights of autonomy of practice of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. In the past twodecades, a number of reform efforts have attempted to overcome the isolation of the classroom. Yet, the culture of “presentism, individualism, and conservatism” Lortie first described in Schoolteacher  (1975) persists.This trend toward individualism is deeply embedded in American culture (Bellah, Madsden, Sullivan,Swindler, & Tipton, 1985; Putnam, 1995; 2000). Yet, studies of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991;Wenger, 1998) and teacher communities (Calderwood, 2000; Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2000;Westheimer, 1998) demonstrate the potential for teachers to develop effective communities of practice. Newcommunication technologies make it possible for teachers to participate in larger, geographically-dispersedprofessional communities beyond the boundaries of the classroom, the school, and the local district. They provideopportunities to collaborate with other teachers to build new knowledge, learn about new resources, and developnew strategies to enhance their teaching (Schlager, Fusco, & Schank, 1998).Preservice teacher development is an ideal time to introduce teachers to the larger community of theirprofession and to the tools that can provide them access to continued learning within a community of practiceonline. The current generation of preservice teachers is technology literate. Many cannot remember a time beforethere was a computer in their home. They stay in touch with friends and family via email and they are more likelyto use the web than the library to look for information. What better time than their college years to establishcollaborative patterns of practice, enhanced by new communication technologies?What follows is a report on a study of two cohorts of preservice teachers – secondary science andsecondary English education majors – who began to build communities of practice and to use online communicationtools to extend those communities beyond the boundaries of the classroom. In particular, the study focuses on howthe tools they used and the context of their work together in the teacher development program mediated their successin forming community and in appropriating these tools to support collaborative learning online. CONTEXT OF THE STUDY In 1993, the College of Education (COE) at the University of Missouri began a major revision of its curriculum thatresulted in a new Teacher Development Program first implemented in fall of 1996. One of the goals of the programrevision was to move more towards an apprenticeship model of learning, with an increasing emphasis on situatedcognition about leaning and teaching. This goal was accomplished through placing preservice teachers (PSTs) infield experiences from the very first of their course of study in education and concluding their program with acapstone semester-long internship experience in student teaching.  At the same time, the COE began massive changes in its technology infrastructure. The general goal of thenew plan was to create “an immersive environment with ready access to high quality technology and support for all”(Laffey, Musser & Wedman, 1998). A new computer lab in the COE provided state-of-the-art equipment and alarge technical support staff. PSTs and faculty were provided with laptop computers (PowerBook 1400s) with bothdial-up and ethernet access capabilities. Classrooms and offices were wired to provide ubiquitous network connectivity. The Center for Technology Innovations in Education (CTIE) launched new software developed for theprogram to facilitate PSTs’ reflection, communication, and collaboration: the Interactive Shared Journaling System(Laffey, Musser, & Tupper, 1998).Rapid technological advances in the past five years have been reflected in a number of changes in thetechnology infrastructure in the COE. In 1999, Townsend Hall was gutted and completely restructured. Reopenedin August 2000, the renovated building of classrooms and offices centers around the technology lab, which spans allthree floors. Classrooms radiate out from the lab, making it much easier to access equipment and technical support.Among the new technologies available for classroom use is a SmartBoard.The laptop program was abandoned, in large part due to financial constraints that made it difficult tomaintain or upgrade computers or to acquire new ones for incoming PSTs. PSTs found little need for the laptops,since they were seldom used in the classroom. Outside class, they had ready access to computers of their own athome and in public labs on campus. Similarly, the Journal was not well integrated into the curriculum and notwidely used by the instructors or the PSTs. Only one cohort, the secondary science education cohort I will discussbelow, continued to use the Journal during Phase II of the program.Increasing interest in and demand for tools that provided course information online – such as course syllabi,assignments, and electronic discussion lists – provided incentive for the COE to license Blackboard’s CourseInfo.Course web sites, once the tool of only the most innovative instructors who could design their own, becameavailable for everyone teaching in the COE. METHODS Sample This study is part of an NSF-funded longitudinal study of the class of 2001 throughout their time in the teacherdevelopment program. Our team of researchers surveyed the entire class about their technology practices andattitudes. We also studied a primary sample of 20 PSTs and a secondary sample of 45 PSTs through interviews,observation of their courses, and collection of artifacts of their work. Through our selections, we attempted to builda sample of PSTs who would be representative of the gender, race, and ethnicity of the population, as well as of therange of technology expertise. We selected PSTs who were preparing for teaching in a wide range of age-levels anddisciplines. We also attempted to select those who appeared to be seriously committed students who, we thought,would be likely to complete the teacher development program. This study focuses on two cohorts of PSTs:secondary science education and secondary English education. I selected these cohorts for further study primarilybecause they were about to enter three-semester sequences of courses in curriculum and pedagogy in their respectivedisciplines that already had established reputations for using communication technologies. Data Collection Over the course of their three semesters in Phase II, from August 1999 to December 2000, I observed their educationcourses in science and English, observed their interactions online, and interviewed six PSTs in each of these twocohorts each semester. At the end of the winter 2001 semester, after most had completed their student teaching, Icompleted a final interview with the participants in the study. The interview guides were collaboratively designedby the research team. The interviews focused on questions about what they perceived to be the most importantthings they were learning from their classes and field experiences, their pedagogical beliefs, their uses of technology, their confidence in their readiness to teach, their communication networks, and their sense of community within the their cohorts and the program. Data Analysis Data analysis for this study included analysis of interview transcripts, archived communications online, andobservation field notes. Data analysis was ongoing from the beginning of my first field observation. Triangulationof my observation field notes with the voices of the PSTs in what they told me during interviews and what they saidto each other online helped to provide validation of the findings, as I tested my observations against those of theparticipants in the study. Further refinement of my understanding came through ongoing discussions with mycolleagues on the research team throughout the project. In particular, I looked for evidence of the PSTs’ success in  building community both in class and online, grounded in the characteristics of communities of practice andcommunities of teachers discussed in the literature. I also looked for factors in the tools they used and the context of their program that might enhance or impede their ability to build collaborative learning communities and to usethese tools to extend those communities. RESULTS Secondary Science Education The Agents  Nineteen PSTs were enrolled in the first course in secondary science education in the fall 1999 semester. Fourteenremained by the third semester of the sequence. Two had completed the first course out of sequence to completetheir science education coursework; three others changed majors; one transferred to another college; and one joinedthe group in the final semester to complete the sequence. Four of the 14 PSTs were master’s level students. Half (7)intended to teach biology, four to teach chemistry, and three to teach earth science. Six were males and eight werefemales. The six selected for the case study were all undergraduates; two were males and four were females. Oneplanned to teach earth science, three to teach chemistry, and two to teach biology.The instructor for the first two semesters of the sequence was a full-time member of the faculty in the COEin science education. He had taught this sequence of courses for a number of years and was known as a technologyadvocate within the COE. He had attended workshops provided by the University to gain new technology skills andhad developed his own web site for the science education sequence. He was also working to develop a multimediatutorial on photosynthesis, which he invited the PSTs to pilot test. The instructor for the third semester was anadjunct faculty member who was the science curriculum coordinator in a school district in a nearby community. Shehad recently completed her doctorate in science education from the University and was, therefore, familiar with theformer instructor’s ideas and methods. The Context  The  physical and temporal context  of the class meeting space changed from semester to semester. During the firsttwo semesters of Phase II, Townsend Hall was undergoing renovation, so the class met in other classrooms oncampus. In fall 1999, they met in a traditional classroom with four rows of chairs facing a “teacher’s desk” at thefront of the room. There was little opportunity for interaction among PSTs. The class met twice a week, early in themorning. Energy levels appeared to be low and attendance was sporadic. The second semester, they were able tomeet in a science lab space in another building. It became more of a “home” for them. The instructor’s office was just across the hall and, since he was the only one using this classroom, he could customize the room for this class.The lab tables provided more opportunity for experiments and demonstrations, but they did not do much forfacilitating communication among class members. For the most part, they continued to sit in rows, facing the frontof the room. The class continued to meet twice a week, but later in the morning. Attendance was more regular. Bythe third semester, PSTs were able to move back into the education building, into a room customized for scienceclasses with lab tables, sinks, and other supplies. Smaller tables in the room could be rearranged for multiplegroupings, providing more opportunity for communication. Because of the limited time the adjunct faculty memberwas available, the class meeting time was changed to once a week, from 5:00 to 7:30 in the evening.The  pedagogical context  , too, changed over the course of the three semesters. There was a good deal of structure in the first two semesters. A detailed schedule of class activities and assignment due dates was posted onthe web, along with a detailed system of points for each activity and assignment. The greatest percentage of pointswas allotted to PSTs’ microteaching in class (20%). Posting entries in the Journal, by contrast, counted no morethan 5% of the total grade for the semester, weighted no more value than attendance (5%), participation in the sharedresponsibilities (5%), or having homework submitted on time (5%). During the third semester, much of thestructure of the course was relaxed. Microteaching assignments continued, but the emphasis was clearly uponcurriculum planning with numerous assignments in planning individual lessons and curriculum units. Use of theJournal was dropped and the culminating teaching philosophy paper was reduced to a one-page assignment. The Tool  The Interactive Shared Journaling System was first designed as a Macintosh software to facilitate preserviceteachers’ ongoing reflection on their learning experiences through the course of their teacher education program(Laffey, Musser,& Tupper, 1998). The Journal supports the use of text entries as well as muiltimedia objects suchas graphics, audio and video clips, and active links to web sites. It allows the user the option of making a journal  entry private or sharing it with other users. A web-based interface, initially developed for Windows users, eventuallybecame the interface most commonly used.The instructor for the secondary science education courses integrated its use into his classes and continued touse it even after others in the program had largely abandoned the tool. His plan was to assign a series of sharedreflections on five topics spanning the three semesters—the nature of science, science literacy, scientific inquiry,teaching scientific knowledge, and models of teaching science. The Journaling was intended to culminate in alengthy paper in which each PST outlined a teaching philosophy. For each topic, the instructor assigned PSTs tocompose and submit five journal entries based on articles they had read on the assigned topics. Each series of entries was to follow a prescribed format:1.   a report on the article (with bibliographic citation)2.   a reflection on the article (50 lines minimum length)3.   a response to each of two to three assigned teammates’ reflections (25 lines)4.   a rejoinder to each teammate’s response to your reflection (25 lines)5.   a reassessment of the topic synthesizing the discussion and summarizing their thinking (50 lines)These required entries were each outlined in a series of “tasks” composed by the instructor and distributedthrough the Journal system to each PST. PSTs only needed to edit the “task” in their “inbox” to complete theassignment. PSTs were assigned to journaling teams of three to four PSTs at the beginning of each semester. Duedates for each posting throughout the semester were also assigned. The first two topics were assigned during thefirst semester; topics 3 and 4 were assigned during the second semester. Due to a change in instructors, the Journalassignment was abandoned in the third semester of the science education sequence. Markers of Community  One of the key characteristics that appears in most conceptualizations of community is that of a set of  shared experience s. The extended time this group spent together, not only in their three-semester sequence in scienceeducation, but also in many science classes they had in common, helped to bond them together as community. Atthe beginning of class, I often heard talk about assignments due in other classes, exams coming up, and so on.Another characteristic of community, shared responsibility , appeared to be part of the intentional design of theinstructor during the first two semesters. At the beginning of each semester, he asked for PSTs to take on differentroles such as the time-keeper (to warn him that class time was ending) and someone to collect and distributeassignments. Jobs that changed with each class meeting included the person responsible for the quote for the day; for“heads up” (the person who reminded everyone of upcoming activities and assignments for class); and for the“discrepant event” or science demonstration for the day. Each person had a role and responsibility within the group.They began to develop something of a shared identity as science education majors in their time together. When theywere thrown in together in a large class for all education PSTs in the first semester of Phase II, for instnace, thescience education PSTs were observed to separate themselves out from the rest of the class and sit together.Several spent social time together outside class. During the second semester, the class met in late morning,so many PSTs were seen after class gathering for lunch at the commons nearby. In the third semester, the PSTsbegan to bring food to share with the group each week because of the evening meeting time, adding to the socialatmosphere. Rather than taking time out for a break, they elected to nibble throughout the class.  Entrance and exit rituals. A frequently-used community-building activity in many classes and workshopsis some form of introduction of the group members, one to another, sharing their background and interests and othersalient features. This kind of activity was noticeably absent in the first two semesters of the sequence. The groupdid get to know each other, but not through any intentional design of their activities in class. One PST commented,“I definitely was expecting…..every class I’ve been in so far, [every] education class, you would [have] come in anddone some sort of ….like…go around the circle” and introduce yourself. “I was definitely expecting that. And nowit’s almost too late to do something like that……..we need to know more about each other.” The introduction of thenew instructor to the group in the third semester required new introductions, which may have contributed tostrengthening the social bonds of the group. At the end of the third semester, realizing that many would be goingseparate ways for student teaching and jobs, the PSTs organized a potluck dinner as an exit ritual. The gatheringwas hosted by one of the PSTs who lived on a farm some 75 miles away. Despite the distance, the majority of thegroup made the drive and endured the December temperatures for the dinner, bonfire, and sharing of stories.  Meaningful relationships . Two members of this group developed a good friendship outside class by thecoincidence of being neighbors in the same apartment complex. If one were absent, the other made a point of collecting materials and taking notes. Three of the women in the group had known each other since they first enteredthe program; two of these three had roomed together and, by the end of the four years together, had been maid of honor in each other’s weddings. Their student teaching assignments were in different cities, though, as they moved  toward their first teaching jobs, and one admitted that they were already beginning to have trouble staying in touch.“It hasn't been as much as I thought it would be. I thought we might talk and ask ‘What are you doing?’ and getideas. But it hasn't happened.” Participation . One key sign of community, of course, is participation, in this instance indicated mostclearly by the PSTs’ communication and engagement in class activities. In class, participation levels varied fromday to day and from person to person. One of the members of the cohort was known to be silent in class, so much sothat it became something of a common joke for the group in those rare moments when he did break his silence.Others were observed to be much more vocal, particularly the older, non-traditional and graduate students in thegroup. During the first two semesters, indeed, some would comment on this in their interviews. Some felt that thesePSTs dominated the communications in class, while others noted that the instructor actually did most of the talking.One PST acknowledged that this “is probably good because if the conversation is controlled by some of us in class,we would get nowhere.”Online participation was limited to the assigned tasks. Four of the six PSTs in the case study cohortcompleted all 20 of the assigned journal entries, writing abstracts of articles they read, reflecting on their articles,responding to their teammates’ entries, and summarizing their thoughts on each of the four assigned topics. Evenso, their entries were fairly short, seldom longer than the requirements. One of the six completed about 60% of theassigned entries, but appeared to abandon the Journal midway through the second semester. One posted about half of the required entries. She posted all five entries on the first topic, but in subsequent rounds, she was only able topost the first two entries—the abstract of her article and her reflection on it, and those were most often posted wellafter the due date. She posted her work so late that she was not able to engage her teammates in discussion. Theywere not able to respond to her entries, nor did she take the time to respond to their entries or summarize anychanges in her thinking based on subsequent discussions.The Journal was used only instrumentally, simply to complete assigned tasks. Some did not even completeall the assigned entries. Although the tool itself afforded the opportunity to post entries other than those assigned,none of this group made entries other than those assigned. Most appeared to be relieved when the Journalassignments were abandoned in the third semester. Secondary English Education The Agents  In the fall 1999 semester, nineteen PSTs enrolled in the first course of a three-semester sequence in teachingEnglish/Language Arts in the secondary school. Fifteen of these returned for the second semester. Three new PSTs joined this cohort to either complete additional certification or to complete the course out of sequence. In the thirdand final semester of the sequence, three PSTs from the first semester rejoined the group, while three others left thegroup. The cohort consisted predominantly of female undergraduates. Only three to four PSTs each semester weremale; only three to four were graduate students seeking additional teaching certification.The instructor for the first semester of the course was the regular faculty member who had taught thissequence for several years. Two teaching assistants joined the teaching team this semester, one from the COE andone as a benefit of the writing intensive program on campus, since this course qualified as writing intensive. Theinstructor in the second semester was a graduate student completing her doctorate in literacy education. She hadtaught the course before and had worked with the faculty member in charge of the course. She had experience inteaching with technology, particularly with computer-mediated communication technology. Another doctoralstudent began the third semester of the sequence. She, too, had previous experience in working with this course andthis instructor. The regular faculty member rejoined the group in October after returning from teaching on exchangein South Africa. The Context  The Physical and Teamporal Context. During the renovation of Townsend, this class met in other, more traditionalclassrooms across campus. In the fall 1999 semester, they met in a classroom in the engineering building; in thewinter 2000 semester, they met in a classroom in the business school. Both classrooms were arranged with chairs inrows facing a teacher’s desk at the front of the room. In the first semester, the faculty member instructing the courseoccasionally asked PSTs to rearrange seating in small groups or in one large circle for reader response groups orwhole class discussions. In the second semester, the instructor asked PSTs, from the first, to rearrange their chairsinto a large circle for each class session; she sat in the circle as another member of the group. The first semester,they met twice a week in the morning; the second semester, they met once a week, from 5:00 to 7:30 in the evening.
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