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lunes, 20 de junio de 2016

Contributing to a community of practice


The web, in many ways, hold the key to community sharing in teacher environments. It may very well be a truism that availability and sharing are among the main reasons people think of when talking about why the web is so brilliant for them. However, I believe that a deeper reason is personal convenience. Is it not odd that staff from a school may not see each other much, aside from scheduled staff meetings, yet be incredibly active when online? I know for a fact that agreeing on a schedule with other teachers can be a nightmare. Everyone's schedule is always different and, as a result, it becomes difficult setting up reunions to share ideas and best practices.

A web community

A web community offers that which we do not have during our busy days, which is attending teacher reunions "relatively" on time and always having access to the latest news. Asynchronous communication becomes an important way of exchanging ideas and resources about teaching and learning.

There are, of course, countless online environments that can be used to create a private or public community of teachers for the purpose of sharing resources. In a way, they could be thought of as dimensions or layers which go from a completely closed to a public one. At the end of the day it depends on the objectives the school and teachers may have and the reach they expect to have.

The first, and closest dimension, is email. If the idea is to share content in a private manner with the school's staff and they are not that many, email just might be the quickest and easiest solution. Each participating teacher would need to create their mailing lists which include everyone in their school; this way facilitating the sending of messages to everyone by only typing in the name of the mailing list on the "to" field. Also, everyone would need to agree to "reply to all" when adding comments and files to emails so no one is left out. Email may not be the best solution for setting up a community, but it may be a good alternative for small communities of teachers. The real trick would be to treat each email message as part of a bigger threaded conversation. Gmail is perhaps the best platform to achieve this.

When working with a bigger number of teachers, or considering having a public community, email simply is not a good option. For bigger communities, social networks offer the next level solution. A Facebook group or Google+ community are really good spaces for creating communities where everyone can share content and ideas, add comments, and also use social markers, such as the like button, to show encouragement. No mailing lists are needed. All that needs to be done is to join the social community and immediately partake in the sharing.

When using social networks, some privacy concerns may arise which could deter participating teachers. A third level solution would be online forums. Platforms such as Proboards or Lefora are some great examples of what can be done with online forums while giving more control to participating teachers over the identity they which to use. Similar to social groups, online forums can be used as private or public spaces for community building.

A fourth, and final, dimension might be setting up a blog or wiki and build the community through the commenting features. However, this places all of the work load on the owner, or owners, of the blog or wiki. i.e. a blog might be thought of as a community centered around one person while a social group is a decentralized community. Moderators are important roles in any community, but a moderator does not have the responsibility of creating all of the content, as is the case of a blog owner.

No matter if we are talking about a small email based community or an enormous public social network one, what I see as key is the sensation participants may have of belonging to a group of like-minded peers, all of which contribute content within a "virtual" environment.

Share what exactly

Where to create a community is only part of the equation; the second part has to do with what is to be shared by the participating teachers. While all environment may share the basic characteristic of text-based communication, it becomes more significant to place attention on certain protocols and templates for sharing other forms of content such as lesson plans, activities, and other didactic material.

I think that the optimal solution is to have software specialized for the creation and distribution of the didactic material to be shared. In the Blended Learning Essentials course, we were introduced to the Learning Designer software during activity three. Learning Designer is a free online tool for creating lesson plans. Despite it being at its early release version, it is quite clear that it is a very complete tool which offers new perspectives to lesson planning by integrating controlled data fields, lesson plan stages and a wonderful pie chart illustrating how skills will be used by students.

With the Learning Designer it is possible to export content in its native LDJ format, so that other teachers may upload the file to their Learning Designer accounts. Microsoft Word is another export format supported by the platform. In this way the Learning Designer tool offers the protocols and templates needed to structure the exchange of files containing didactic material. Clearly a valuable tool for any teacher.

Although the Learning Designer is relatively easy to use, it is also important to remember that teachers are generally not known for their technological skills. Many teachers only learn how to use a handful of software, such as Microsoft Office or Google Docs, and have a difficult time integrating new digital tools. In these cases, a first step in community sharing would be to agree upon template standards within a word processor or spreadsheet so that participating teachers can focus on typing in their best practices and not have to worry about the organization and distribution of their content.

Final Thoughts

Community sharing should be easy and meaningful for all participating members. Much of this ease and meaning happens through establishing certain content standards. At an environment level, the personalization that may be done to the platform being used will also help encourage more active commenting and engagement from members. In my view, it is when participation becomes difficult and inconvenient to members that motivation is lost and the online community crumbles.

I think that online communities of like-minded members are a wonderful and powerful opportunity that the web offers. This is especially the case in the teaching profession where it doesn't matter how experienced one might be, one always needs all the help and support one can get.

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