How Interactions in Online Teacher Communities Benefit the Classroom
In this article, a Knology researcher reviewed literature on online teacher networks and communities and their benefits in the classroom.
What is the relationship between classroom practice and teacher communities? The answer may seem obvious: teachers form communities to share, sustain, and change classroom practice. However, it is less obvious how and to what extent the discussion taking place between teachers translates into improvements in classroom practice and student outcomes. Here we briefly review recent literature on online teacher networks/communities, including the types of interactions which take place and the benefits they provide to teachers and students.
The articles we reviewed focused on online networks/communities for teachers as sites for professional development and peer-to-peer learning. Many of these communities are informally organized by teachers themselves - for example, using a Twitter hashtag to create a group for teachers of a specific subject. However, educational institutions are also increasingly creating online spaces for teachers as part of professional development initiatives. For instance, a school district might create a space for teachers to talk about implementing a new curriculum, or an online training course may include a discussion forum.
Studies of online teacher groups frequently use the Community of Practice framework developed by Wenger, Trayner, and de Laat (2011), which focuses on learning through interaction in groups of people with a shared goal or interest. This framework outlines multiple types of value co-created by group members, starting with immediate value (such as asking a question and having it answered) and moving towards knowledge capital (new skills, access to information, motivation, relationships) and changes in practice, performance, and/or values. Wenger et al. note that these are often interrelated (“learning is a dynamic process in which producing and applying knowledge are tightly intertwined and often indistinguishable”). With this framework, studies focusing on interactions within an online group are well-positioned to assess the knowledge being shared; but understanding effects on classroom practice requires surveys or interviews with members (preferably longitudinal to track long-term changes).
Most research on online teacher communities takes the form of a case study on a specific group. How a group was formed, its size, the topics it discusses, and the platform where interactions take place affect the nature of interactions between members, making it difficult to generalize findings from one group. However, several literature reviews (including Lantz-Andersson, Lundin, & Selwyn, 2018; Macià & García, 2016; Greenhow et al., 2020) have identified common themes across studies, including frequently observed types of interaction, perceived benefits for participants, and barriers to participation.
Most interactions in teacher groups focus on sharing resources/information. This may take the form of a member deciding unprompted to share something that has worked for them with the larger group or, more frequently, members providing resources or recommendations in response to specific questions. While access to resources and advice is valuable to participants, several of the studies examined in Lantz-Andersson, Lundin, & Selwyn (2018) have pointed out that this form of sharing does not necessarily lead to reflection on and critical discussion of practices, which would lead to more significant change in the classroom. Those communities where teachers did engage in more reflection tended to feature asynchronous communication methods, such as posting to a blog or discussion forum as part of a PD course.
While studies of informally-organized communities often look at whether teachers used something shared in their groups , they do not often address the effect this has on teaching practice more generally. One study which did, Hood (2018), found that using an online resource did not necessarily lead to long-term changes in practice, but that the act of adapting activities to fit teaching style and class needs helped teachers to build knowledge and embed it in their practice.
Teachers in online communities share more than tips and resources. Sharing personal experiences - both positive and negative - makes these groups a valuable source of emotional and professional support. Commiserating with other teachers who have faced the same challenges and celebrating successes helps teachers feel less isolated (in particular, subject-specific groups can connect teachers who may not have colleagues at their school covering the same topic). Building trust and forming relationships enables group members to discuss ideas more effectively. Multiple studies have identified increased enthusiasm, teaching self-efficacy, and a stronger sense of “teacher identity” as positive outcomes of participation in online teacher groups. Both enthusiasm and self-efficacy have been linked to changes in teaching practice and improved outcomes for students (Han & Yin, 2016; Achurra & Villardón, 2012). Teacher professional identity is less clearly defined and thus harder to link with changes in practice, but is often considered an important part of professional development (Beijaard, Meijer, & Verloop, 2004).
Studies of teacher groups tend to focus on the more directly-observable interaction between active participants. Researchers have consistently noted that the majority of activity in online groups comes from a minority of active members. While studies have identified reasons teachers may participate “peripherally” rather than actively (such as time constraints, feeling they have little to contribute, and lack of familiarity with the online platform), there has been little research into how they benefit from membership. These reasons are often described as “barriers” to active participation, however, Lave and Wenger (1991) describe “legitimate peripheral participation” as part of building the knowledge and skills needed to participate more actively by observing more expert members and starting with small contributions to the community. However, studies of teacher groups tend to focus on the more directly-observable interaction between active participants. The value peripheral participants in these groups gain, and the extent to which they change their classroom practice and participation style in the group over time, is worth exploring.
Achurra, C., & Villardón, L. (2012). Teacher self-efficacy and student learning. The European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2. DOI: 10.15405/FutureAcademy/ejsbs(2301-2218).2012.2.17
Beijaard, D., Meijer, P. C., & Verloop, N. (2004). Reconsidering research on teachers’ professional identity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(2), 107-128.
Greenhow, C., Galvin, S. M., Brandon, D. L., & Askari, E. (2020). A decade of research on K–12 teaching and teacher learning with social media: Insights on the state of the field. Teachers College Record, 122(6), 1-72.
Han, J., & Yin, H. (2016). Teacher motivation: Definition, research development and implications for teachers. Cogent Education, 3(1), 1217819.
Hood, N. (2018). Personalising and localising knowledge: how teachers reconstruct resources and knowledge shared online in their teaching practice. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 27(5), 589-605.
Lantz-Andersson, A., Lundin, M., & Selwyn, N. (2018). Twenty years of online teacher communities: A systematic review of formally-organized and informally-developed professional learning groups. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 302-315.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511815355
Macià, M., & García, I. (2016). Informal online communities and networks as a source of teacher professional development: A review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 291-307.
Wenger, E., Trayner, B., and de Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.
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