Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter  2010    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  14, Issue  4

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Building a Web-Based Community of Practice

Elizabeth L. Hardman, DePaul University

Elizabeth Hardman, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education and Counseling

 

Abstract

This paper examines the challenges specific to building communities of practice in special education and describes how Web 2.0 technology was deployed to engage distributed stakeholders in the reproduction of evidenced-based inclusive practices in special education. The project met with moderate success during its first year but also yielded some unexpected results that bear important implications for teacher education in general.

 

Introduction

The mastery of pedagogy is of critical importance in the development of quality special education teachers (Blanton, Sindelar, & Correa, 2006). Special educators are expected to be active and resourceful in seeking to understand how language, culture, and familial backgrounds interact with exceptional conditions to impact studentsí academic and social abilities, attitudes, values, interests, and career options in kindergarten through twelfth grade classrooms that include students across thirteen disabilities categories with widely ranging educational abilities (e.g., National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, [NCATE], 2008; Vaughn, Bos, & Schumm, 2011). The practice of special education is defined by the principle of inclusion, a principle that is best satisfied when general and special educators collaboratively engage in a shared practice to meet the needs of every student in the general education classroom. That means that special educators must claim membership in at least two professional learning communities, one with their school-based general education colleagues and another with their discipline-based colleagues (e.g., McKenzi, 2009; Vaughn et al.; Leko & Brownell, 2009). Yet teacher attrition research indicates that this may rarely be the case since large numbers of novice and experienced special educators leave their classrooms annually feeling isolated and ill prepared to meet the demands of practice (Boe & Cook, 2006). In fact, the number of teaching vacancies that occur each year is so large that it far outstrips the number of newly qualified graduates to occupy those positions (McLeskey & Billingsley, 2008). Novices are among the most likely to leave although the probability of staying increases given opportunities to participate in carefully designed professional development activities nested in a supportive working environment (Little & King, 2008; Sindelar, Brownell, & Billingsley, 2010). Without such support, they will probably follow the many that went before them and leave their classrooms feeling isolated and ill prepared for practice.

 

This paper describes how Web 2.0 technology was deployed for the purpose of community building in special education and discusses the projectís first year results. Professional learning communities may be built around any topic or content area (e.g., content literacy, assessment, classroom management, etc.) and used to engage students within and across program areas (general educators, physical therapists, school psychologists, counselors, etc.) and/or practitioners in the field to create multidimensional, dynamic projects and build supportive relationships among those committed to improving the educational outcomes for students with disabilities at at-risk peers. The primary advantage of Web-based over school-based communities lies in membersí ability to collaboratively solve their individual problems with practice and share what they have learned and are learning about the practice across time and distance, while Web 2.0 technology efficiently records the communityís evolution and documents the development of pedagogical expertise and collective knowledge. Regardless of the size or scope of the network, however, the entire community must be prepared to actively participate in community work by sharing artifacts and ideas for community consumption via the Web (Hardman, 2010).

 

Building a Culture of Learning in Special Education

The research literature is unequivocal with respect to the processes necessary for building expertise in special education. Throughout their careers, special educators at every level of practice need liberal access to formal and informal networking (Boe & Cook, 2006; Smith & Ingersoll, 2004) and quality professional development that is tightly focused on inclusive practices known to bring about significant and meaningful changes in student learning (Sindelar, et al., 2010; Leko & Brownell, 2009). Expertise does not develop quickly but evolves over time as teachers exchange ideas about what they have learned and are learning from inside the classroom. Thus quality professional development is that which flows from the ground up, when teachers are given a voice in identifying and designing the content. Schools, on the other hand, tend to select professional development topics that target the needs of the many rather than the few and deliver that content via a top-down, unidirectional approach toward teacher learning. Special education content cannot be delivered using this traditional hub-and-spoke model, nor can it be constituted in a string of disconnected one-day workshops but is realized as teachers critically reflect on their practices and frame and reframe their own learning needs (McKenzi, 2009; Leko & Brownell). The development of expertise is an iterative process, one that occurs naturally as teachers seek out that which is most effective for students, challenge established routines, and devise a more responsive curriculum. Professional growth and work become inextricably entwined and a community of practice emerges from the inside out (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006; Leko & Brownell, 2009).

 

Obviously, formal and informal networking plays a vital role in the development of professional learning communities because it breaks down isolation and establishes forums for thinking through the standards of practice (Leko & Brownell; 2009; Hardman, 2010). Through networking, teachers create an authentic process for posing problems, deliberating solutions, and constructing new knowledge that is grounded in classroom based inquiry, reflection, and experimentation. Although most professional learning communities are school-based and develop informally around joint work or a particular project of interest (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006), the most effective ones are those that include general and special educators at all levels of expertise, teacher educators, and school and district administrators (NCATE, 2008). There are, however, significant challenges to establishing learning communities in special education since most schools employ only a few special educators, half of whom may be uncertified due to teacher, and there is an overall lack of institutional resources available to support teacher educators who wish to build university-school partnerships across multiple school sites (Sindelar et al., 2010). Nevertheless, teacher educators must become involved in community development if research is to become a viable resource in the education of students with disabilities and at risk peers (McLeskey & Billingsley, 2008).

The opportunity to initiate a professional learning community seems to materialize quite naturally as teacher educators seek to form partnerships with practitioners in the field to support the professional development and induction of pre-service special educators (Hardman, 2010). Yet, capitalizing on this opportunity for the purpose of community building represents no small challenge, for it requires teacher educators to step out of the safety of their own classrooms and into the realities of schooling (Bay & Parker-Katz, 2009; Jones, 2009) where the veracity of theory and research will surely be questioned and tested. Yet, to establish the feasibility of research based interventions as well as increase interest among practitioners in doing school-based research, teacher educators must play a role in the work of school based professional learning communities. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine how this can happen when personnel and programs are distributed over multiple school sites, the field is generally lacking in experienced teachers to provide site based leadership, and there is little institutional support for this kind of work. As a result, many personnel preparation programs remain disconnected from the realities of schooling and produce little research about the effectiveness of field experiences, student teaching, induction support (Sindelar et al., 2010), or the feasibility of research based interventions in practical settings (McLeskey & Billingsley, 2008).

 

The solution for many of the problems associated with building community among special educators may lie in Web 2.0 technology, a category of Internet tools that are particularly well-suited for the purpose of community building (Hardman, 2010; Sindelar et al., 2010). Tools such as wikis, nings, blogs, and in browser chat allow individuals to move beyond passively absorbing whatever is available on the Web and to become actively involved by customizing media and technology for community building purposes. With Web 2.0 technology, special and general educators at every level of practice can collaboratively engage in the production and reproduction of evidenced-based inclusive practices even though they may be separated by distance and time.

 

The Demon Strategic Instruction Network

The Demon Strategic Instruction Network (SIN) is a technology supported, Web based community of practice that was initially conceived as a teacher educator sought to integrate professional development content on implementing the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) (University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, UK-CRL) into her special education coursework. SIM is widely regarded as an evidence-based model that supports the inclusion of students with disabilities and other struggling learners in the general education curriculum (Brownell, Sindelar, Kieley, Danielson, 2010). Problems developed when students tried to secure practical sites to implement the model under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Understandably, potential cooperating teachers were reluctant to supervise an assignment they knew little or nothing about. As a result, the teacher educator and several of her students agreed to form Demon SIN for the purpose of pairing teacher candidates with graduates of the program who had already begun their preparation in the model and wished to continue. Anticipating the many problems associated with delivering professional development at several sites simultaneously, the instructor solicited the advice of a technology consultant on designing Demon SIN as a Web-based community of practice facilitated primarily by two Internet tools, a wiki and a ning.

The Demon SIN wiki (see Figure 1) and Demon SIN-Ning (see Figure 2) provide the basic infrastructure of the community. The Demon SIN wiki is a private wiki that is accessible by invitation only. Since it can be viewed and edited by any community member with Internet access, it empowers every user in the creative production and design of Web page content. Introductory information about the purpose of the wiki, its contents, and contact information are presented on the FrontPage, which can be made public while locking down other pages that house material users do not want publically available. There are two tabs at the top of every wiki page, View and Edit. The wiki administrator assigns each personís level of use by granting either writer or reader privileges. Readers have access to View mode only and can comment on page content but cannot edit or add content. Writers have access to the Edit tab, which allows them to author or edit any page by uploading documents, images, slides shows, videos, et cetera. In edit mode, the page becomes a composition system, a discussion medium, and a repository that facilitates asynchronous communication and group collaboration online. Wikis also have a versioning capability that allows users to edit pages and then revert to earlier versions if they desire. As members interact with each other, the site, and its contents, this versioning capability allows the community to document the evolution of its thought processes. There is also a navigation bar on the right side of every wiki page that works somewhat like a table of contents, allowing users to locate specific content of interest. For example, the Demon SIN navigation bar displays folders for the Learning Strategies Curriculum, Content Enhancement Routines, and a folder on Creating Wiki Content. On the top left of the FrontPage, above the navigation bar, there are links that allow users to create pages and upload files and below the navigation bar is a link to the Demon SIN-Ning.

[Insert Figure 1]

 

The Demon SIN-Ning is also private and the administrator has a great deal of flexibility in determining the siteís appearance and func≠tionality. After completing a simple setup process, the administrator is allowed to choose a visual theme and customize the functionality of the network using a drag and drop tool to select specific features such as chat, events, forums, discussion boards, and blogs. The following tabs are located at the top of every Demon SIN-Ning page to help users navigate the site; Main, Invite, My Page, Members, Videos, Forum, Events, Groups, Chat, and Blogs; although these tabs will vary according to the features the administrator selects during setup. The network administrator has an additional tab titled Manage that allows access to the tools that control the siteís appearance, func≠tionality and other settings. During the setup process, the network administrator also determines the information users provide as they join the network. This information is then posted on each memberís My Page where they can also post videos, pictures, create a blog, and subscribe to updates from specific parts of the social network using RSS feeds. Demon SIN users are advised not use the Website to pose private or sensitive information about themselves or others. It is a professional networking site only.

[Insert Figure 2]

 

Demon SIN was launched with the commencement of classes in the fall of 2009. Membership in the network was entirely voluntary although all of the teacher educatorís graduate and undergraduate students were invited to join the community and to continue their membership beyond graduation as a way of maintaining a relationship with the School of Education. By the third week of the classes, a total of 53 graduate students joined the network. The founding members included19 of 30 teacher candidates enrolled in a graduate program that leads to dual certification in elementary and special education, 15 of 23 graduate students enrolled in a program for general educators seeking certification in special education, seven novice elementary/special educators who had graduated the previous year, and nine general and special education teachers located in four partner schools. The partner schools included one public elementary school in the large urban district and three private sectarian and non-sectarian elementary, middle, and high schools. Three of the nine general educators were alumni who had been teaching for five or more years. By the end of the first year, the membership had grown to more than 100. Numbers, however, do not tell the entire story.

Conclusion

From its inception, Demon SIN was intended to be community owned and operated. Members were expected to move beyond merely consuming information and to become produces of knowledge, as well. This is where the network fell short of expectations in the first year. The first users produced very little content themselves and relied instead almost exclusively on the network administrator to direct and manage all facets of community work. Certainly, unfamiliarity with wikis, nings, and other hardware and software tools contributed to the limited level of production in the first year, but lack of technological knowhow also seemed to provide a convenient excuse to resist participation in community work. In fact, many seemed to prefer the traditional top down approach to professional development and actively resisted the notion of producing content themselves. They were, quite simply, unwilling to participate in their own learning. Yet, practicing the pedagogy of inclusion enjoins active engagement in oneís own learning throughout oneís teaching career. Lacking this commitment, special educators place themselves at high risk for leaving the profession feeling isolated and unprepared to meet the demands of teaching. There is no dispute about the benefits that can accrue when special and general educators collaborate in the production and reproduction of evidenced-based inclusive practices, but community building in special education appears to be no simple matter. The idea of using technology to facilitate the development of professional learning communities in special education shows promise, but before that promise can be realized, more research is needed on how technology can be used to build and maintain a commitment to lifelong learning among teachers for the purpose of engaging them in the kind of transformative practice known to bring about the most significant and meaningful changes in student learning.

 

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