This is Your Brain on the Internet

I just received a call from my editor. I was a week late on this column.

"Research shows that the capacity to support collaboration, reflection and professional development, as well as to overcome the barriers of time and place, makes the use of online forums a potentially useful and cost effective innovation." (Anderson, 1996).

Boy, do I agree with this statement! Time was of the essence. I was working out of town, so place didn't matter as long as I could get online. I needed help from my colleagues my community.

I sent out an E-mail asking several colleagues for their input on: defining an online community, how collaboration helps, how they balance face-to-face learning with virtual collaboration, and how e-collaboration has made a difference.

Since the listserv was for professional developers, they felt my pain. Many had been there, waiting until the last minute to create materials or a report. In no time at all, I started receiving research, ideas and comments that helped me put together the thoughts that follow. Virtual collaboration is crucial for my work and learning. In fact, it's almost scary how dependent I am on online collaborative tools. When I get home, I check my email before I even kiss my husband. Are my priorities a little mixed up, or what?

Defining Community

My online community is where I touch base to see whether I'm on the right track, where I get support and advice, and where I learn and teach. In the eyes of its many users, online communication is a powerful medium for like-minded individuals to form virtual communities that provide mutual support, advice and identity.

Communications networks offer the prospect of greater opportunities for seeking advice, challenging orthodoxy, meeting new minds and constructing one's own sense of self. Entirely new notions of social action, based not upon proximity and shared physical experience but rather on remote networks of common perceptions, may begin to emerge and challenge existing social structures (Loader, 1998).

How E-Collaboration Helps

Some of my colleagues E-mailed back to say that online forums provided them opportunities to meet others with the same focus and questions. Physical place did not matter. The power of virtual meetings is how easy it becomes to exchange dialogue and digital files. Not only is this true for our own discourse with other professional developers, it is an effective vehicle for the teachers with whom we work.

The research about what is the best method for learning really does not matter when online forums are used for professional education. What matters is whether participants perceive the forum as a valued process. If they do, they will be more likely to adopt it as a platform for continuing professional development (Rogers, 1995).

As professional developers, we can help teachers become open to virtual collaboration. Many teachers are using E-mail for personal use and just need a gentle nudge from us to take the next step. Once teachers see how easy it is to share files and resources then more will.

Teachers typically work in isolation from their peers, and the prevailing professional and bureaucratic expectation is that they achieve a level of competency on their own. As a means of overcoming this professional isolation, online discussion groups could assume an important role as information-exchange opportunities between teachers (Bakkenes et al., 1999).

Balancing Live and Virtual

The five aspects of successful professional learning communities include

  1. Supportive and shared leadership;
  2. Collective creativity;
  3. Shared values and vision;
  4. Supportive conditions; and
  5. Shared teachers and learning practices (SEDL, 1997).

The spirit of community is essential to the vitality of virtual communities. What holds a virtual community intact is the subjective criterion of togetherness, a feeling of connectedness that confers a sense of belonging. Virtual communities require much more than the mere act of connection itself (Foster, 1996).

One way for teachers to build their portfolio and community is to go online to take courses; to use, adapt or create support materials and projects; and to collaborate with other teachers and classrooms. However, teachers are overwhelmed with all they have to do during the day. I know of many teachers who have written online courses into their individual learning plans. They started the courses with much optimism only to find it more and more difficult to find time to complete them. Building a learning community does not happen overnight, and teachers' time constraints and other obstacles affect their completing the course. It just becomes one more thing to do.

Teachers who start with face-to-face (f2f) meetings identify personally with others in the community. They can put a face to each name. At the first meeting, teachers introduce themselves, their hopes and fears, why they are there, and connect with others in the group. At this meeting, the professional developer is the facilitator guiding the discussions and providing directions that will carry over into the online environment. A good facilitator and additional f2f meetings are necessary for the success of the community. Professional developers may find their online community does not need a f2f component, but it is exciting to actually meet the person they have been virtually talking to for years. Conferences become old home week for many of us; finally putting a face to the name.

The experience of using these online forums (and communities) powerfully reinforced the collective imagination of computer users that there was another "world," a world where much of their social intercourse might take place, where much of their information would come from. Could this be where the denizens of the global village truly belonged? (Wooley,1992)

Has online collaboration made a difference for you or your teachers?

I could never go back to just f2f activities. This is true for most of the professional developers I know. I couldn't have written this column without information from Cynthia Sistek-Chandler, Nancy Haas, Joni Turville, Janice Friesen, David Warlick, and so many others. My online community is more than other professional developers who want to share ideas, ask questions and find answers. It is my own learning community. Teachers need opportunities to join their own online learning community. This is where the professional developer as facilitator, coach or guide can make sure their teachers find the appropriate online communities and collaborative tools and learn to use them well.

Email: Barbara Bray is president of Computer Strategies, LLC and My eCoach. She moderates the CUE techstaffdevelop listerv and writes PDQs for where you can also submit tips.

Copyright 2003, CUE, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


Anderson, T. The Virtual Conference: Extending Professional Education in Cyberspace. 1996. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 2. 2/3.

Bakkenes, I., et al. Teacher Isolation and Communication Network Analysis in Primary Schools. 1999, Educational Administration Quarterly, 35, 2.

Foster, D. Community and Identity in the Electronic Village. 1996. Internet culture. London: Routledge.

Gates, W. etal. The Road Ahead. 1995. London: Penguin.

Loader, B. H. Cyberspace Divide: Equality, Agency and Policy in the Information Society. 1998. London: Routledge.

Rheingold, H. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. 1993. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Rogers, E. M. Diffusion of Innovations. (4th Edition). 1995. New York: The Free Press.

Sachs, J., & Smith, R. Constructing Teacher Culture. 1988. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 9, 4, pp. 423Ã436.

SEDL. Professional learning communities. What are They and Why are They Important? ( Southwest Educational Development Laboratories: Issues about change. Vol. 6. No. 1. Available. March 2003.

Wooley, B. Virtual Worlds. 1992. London: Penguin.