Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Online Communities for Teachers

An online community is a virtual community that exists on the internet and whose members enable its existence through their continuous participation. An online community is usually formed by a group of people with common interests and who use the internet (e-mail groups, blog posts, forums, websites, instant messaging) for interacting, sharing and working towards a common goal . Members of an online community can post content, share materials, initiate posts and discuss experiences.

The strength of online communities lies in their ability to be self sustaining and generative. Participation in online communities can potentially add a great value to the overall professional development of teachers. Teachers have access to relevant, reliable and flexible learning that is not constrained by time and can be accessed according to members needs. 

 Some of the benefits that the teachers can look forward to by participating in online communities have been discussed below.

Flexibility and Versatility
Online programs can take a wide variety of forms and have advantages such as convenience, scalability, and adaptability. For example, modern Information Technologies make it possible to store and tag large amounts of data so that people can access them in different forms, edit them, comment on them, share them, interact with them, and acquire pieces to create their own lesson plans or resources.

Making Connections
Online communities can also build connections between teachers and other groups as teachers work in a number of different contexts. Teachers work in classrooms, in school communities, in the community, and in professional development courses. One feature of effective online communities is that it can bridge these multiple settings. For example, online communities can establish connections between the teachers and the administrators in the schools. Interactions on such online forums can help build the knowledge of each group about the other’s area of expertise which in turn might make it easier to reach at a consensus on various decisions within a school.

Access to a Larger Audience
Online communities provide teachers with opportunities to communicate with a large audience. This can help them receive diverse perspectives from different teachers. Online communities can bring teachers from different schools together; teachers from one district can connect with teachers from other districts, and likewise teachers from one state can interact with teachers from other states. In addition, it can tap into expertise no matter where it is located, so that teachers with a specialty or an expertise can serve as resources for teachers elsewhere.

Emotional Sharing
Teaching is a hard profession, and it is very apparent for the teachers to get emotionally involved. Online communities also provide teachers with a platform to share their happy teaching moments and enjoyment for teaching with a large group. And not just positive emotions, teachers can also share the stress associated with multiple responsibilities associated with their profession. Sharing can help teachers to receive emotional support and a variety of solutions to issues related to teaching.

Problem Solving
Online communities provide teachers with places where they can safely share their problems and issues that they hesitate to share with their local school teachers. It could be the case that teachers might feel that they would be considered incapable if they asked questions or shared problems in their local schools. In online communities, it is possible to communicate with teachers who have had some similar experiences or can provide useful solutions, without feeling intimidated as they have the option to safeguard their identity if they want. The online communities can provide teachers a variety of solutions to their problems and can also assist them in seeing situations from different points of view.

Exploring Ideas
Online communities also give the teachers a chance to discuss classroom and non-classroom teaching related ideas. Classroom teaching ideas may include lesson plans, resources and classroom management strategies. Whereas non classroom teaching ideas may include discussions on classroom environments, school events, teachers’ administrative work, and anything related to teachers’ work.

Barriers to the Effective Use of Online Communities
Along with the benefits, there are some potential barriers to the implementation and effective use of online communities for teachers. Some of the reasons as to why teachers don’t participate in online communities are listed below:

Lack of Knowledge
The number of teachers who have heard of, and used, online communities is very low. The problem is that many of them are unaware of such online opportunities available for teachers. Also since educators usually desire face-to-face interactions in professional practice they may develop a bias against online opportunities and fail to make effective use of the available options.

Lack of Time
Some teachers might be aware of various online forums available for them and the benefits those forums could offer them, but they aren’t able to participate in those forums due to lack of time. Teachers are unable to fully exploit the potential of online communities because they lack the time needed to explore and scan through the content available on various online forums that could prove to be helpful for them. 

Lack of Access to Technology
While some teachers have access to technologies at school or in their homes, many do not. Even if teachers have access to computers, those computers don’t necessarily work well. Without adequate technical support, the challenges of getting computers and software to function may negate the value of resources these online communities have to offer to the teachers.

Currently we have more than 2000 teachers associated with our project. These teachers are constantly being exposed to new ideas and innovative methods of teaching. Having an online community where these teachers are encouraged to share their thoughts, expressions and ideas will be very useful for them.

Aware of all the benefits that online communities can offer, we hope to work on creating one such platform within the scope of our project for the teachers associated with us. It will help them make connections, share knowledge materials and experiences, but overall it would contribute to their professional growth and development.