The connection between learning communities and technology integration may become a powerful combination to foster collaborative learning environments that promote and sustain the integration of information technologies. The ultimate goal is to enhance student and teacher learning experiences. Part I examined research on learning communities and Internet-based learning activities. Now, Part II explores the implementation of a school districtâ€™s K-12 Technology Learning Community program.
The Byram Hills Learning Communities Model
During the summer of 1997, the Byram Hills Central School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Judith R. Fox and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Personnel Jacquelyn L. Taylor, initiated a technology program that based its vision on various theories of education reform. The district sought to develop a process for integrating Internet-based inquiry into the K-12 curriculum. Contrary to Mary Burnsâ€™ (2002) findings that the best way to integrate technology was engaging students with nurtured skills and learning concepts rather than on specific content knowledge, the goal of the Byram Hills initiative was to use technology in curriculum areas to create meaningful learning experiences for every student in the district (Taylor, 2001). A collaborative effort between the teachers and administration yielded the formation of the Technology Learning Community (TLC) - an organization within the school district to implement the technology initiative. â€œOur first goal was to create a shared vision,â€ asserted Taylor (2001). The districtâ€™s Technology Committee examined the literature behind learning communities and platforms to initiate Internet-based learning projects. The WebQuest model was chosen for its flexibility to adapt to varied curricula and student abilities. A WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented activity where the information with which learners interact comes from resources on the Internet (Dodge, 1995). First developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March in 1995 at San Diego State University, the WebQuest model invites teachers and students to design Web sites as research projects to solve real-world problems using information on the Internet and propose solutions using other media and information technologies. At Byram Hills, each WebQuest was structured around eight areas: Purpose, Introduction, Essential Question, Task, Process, Resources, Evaluation, and Conclusion. Students navigate through the WebQuest and its links to the Internet to work collaboratively and construct new meaning. WebQuests usually include rubrics for evaluation of student learning (Dodge, 1995). However, the essential organizational element in the Byram Hills technology initiative was the concept of learning communities. According to Taylor (2001), â€œLearning together creates new ideas that bring inspiration to our work with students.â€ The faculty of the Byram Hills Central School District chose to collaborate through technology-based learning communities in their effort to integrate technology in a supportive environment. This decision is supported by the study conducted by Burns (2002) and Riel and Becker (2000). Learning communities encourage reflective, collaborative practice while incorporating technology (Taylor, 2001). Taylor (2001) cited Peter Senge (1990) as the major influence upon which Byram Hills modeled its learning communities. Senge (1990) believed that a learning community is a group of people who are dedicated to learning together in a safe environment that encourages dialogue, feedback, reflection and empowerment. The concept of learning communities involves the team approach to greater collaboration on solving problems through improved collegiality, understanding, and respect with one another (Byram Hills, 2004). Leaders inside the organization, the teacher learning community facilitators, collaborate during the summer and each month of the school year to develop organizational goals, enhance their professional knowledge, and meet challenges collectively. Some Internet-based activities are presented for peer review, refined, and then used by the students in classrooms. Reflection is an integral part of the TLC. This process includes self-reflection, group reflection, and reflection on process and product, especially its impact on student learning (Byram Hills, 2004). The facilitators model collaboration for their individual learning communities to foster dialogue and consensus using technology as a tool for learning. The facilitators are peer teacher-leaders who are learning-resources for each member in a particular learning community. Facilitators function in a non-evaluative role. The facilitators disseminate information to the teachers, and collect data in the form of questions, concerns, and technology-based learning products of the community. The facilitators are also reporters of information to the learning communities about technology changes and opportunities. In turn, the facilitators report back to the Facilitator Team about learning community issues, ideas, and success/failures. The third Wednesday of every month throughout the school year is formally designated for learning community meetings. Academic departments, grade-levels, and interdisciplinary teams come together to nurture collegial relationships. The facilitators lead their learning communities within the schools: six high school academic departments, nine middle school interdisciplinary grade-level teams, six elementary school grade-levels teams, and three K-12 teams - Art, Music, and P.E./Health. There were twenty-four learning communities and twenty-four facilitators in 2003. Congruent with the findings of Burns (2001) and Riel and Becker (2000), a greater sense of responsibility and teamwork resulted from enhanced collaboration and collegiality through the TLC. The Technology Learning Community is now an integral organization within the Byram Hills educational system. Its success is reflected through a number of commendations. Byram Hills was the recipient of the Lower Hudson Regional Information Centerâ€™s 2001 Pioneer Award for innovations in educational technology. LHRIC recognized the districtâ€™s achievement in creating learning communities to construct Internet-based activities that â€œpromote standards, higher order thinking skills, cooperative learning, and foster real-world situations in the classroomâ€ (LHRIC, 2001). The district also received international recognition in 2001. Members of the Technology Committee were invited to Boston in March 2001 to present Learning Communities for Teachers: a Professional Development Model for Technology Integration at the 56th Annual ASCD Conference: â€œReaching for Balance: Resolving Educational Dilemmasâ€.
Education experts agree that learning communities provide schools with a means of implementing reform and change. When teachers are actively engaged in the discussion, planning, and execution of new programs and policies, educational change takes shape. The impact is even greater when teachers lead in this process of collaboration and professional development. As Riel and Becker (2000) found, teachers who participated in activities that foster dialogue and cooperation with colleagues are prone to be more constructivist in their professional practice as well as integrators of computer technology, especially the Internet. The fusion of learning communities as the means of developing Internet-based activities reflects sound educational practice supported by research.
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Steven M. Garcia is the Supervisor of Secondary Social Studies in the Harrison Central School District in Harrison, NY. He is a Doctorate of Education candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Inquiry in Education Leadership Practice program. This paper is a part of his doctoral research. The working title of his dissertation is Internet-based Instruction and School Leadership: The Impact of Constructivist Pedagogy.